A spinoff from the robot veterans at SRI is making a big bet on ubiquitous soft robotics: SuperFlex aims to establish a new product category with what it calls “powered clothing.” The company, which initially split off in April, hopes to have a product to show in a few months, and has raised nearly $10 million to develop it.
Powered clothing, or “intelligent wearable strength” as the company also calls it, would be custom garments with flexible electric motors built in that help the wearer with everyday tasks like simply standing up and walking around — simple, that is, for people whose muscles and bones are in good shape. But it’s different from the exoskeletons you might have seen coming out of DARPA and other military-orientated research.
Lead investor Global Brain is based in Japan, where an aging population is creating friction between families, generations, and social institutions. The idea of a piece of clothing that can help someone stand up, carry groceries, and get out of the house is appealing anywhere, but especially there.
The initial product, a concept for which is shown above, would enhance core strength in the torso, hips, and legs. Users would be able to ramp up power manually if they knew they’d have trouble carrying a load of laundry, for instance, but the suit can also automatically detect actions. Many older people have trouble standing up, for instance, and the suit could detect the beginnings of that action and give a boost.
Mahoney compared it to an electric bike: power is there when you need it, but otherwise it works just like the ordinary version. The clothing itself isn’t going to be bulky or mechanical-looking, either, as early prototypes were.
The money will be used to bring the product to market, hopefully with a reveal soon and availability in 2018.
In 2009, the US population of seniors (65 and over) was 40 million or 13% of the population; by 2030 when the last baby boomer turns 65, it will be 72 million or 19% of the population.
At the start of the current decade, Americans with disabilities numbered:
30.6 million, difficult walking or climbing stairs
12.0 million, require assistance with daily tasks
3.6 million, using a wheelchair, the potential market for H-MEX
2.4 million, Alzheimer’s, senility or dementia